I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and to a degree, I accept his criticism. Consecutive Governments have made pension adjustments in 1995 and 2011 to reflect the equalisation of the pension age and people living longer, although I think we have plateaued in that regard. However, those who have disabilities and conditions such as arthritis will be impacted that bit more. For those who plan to continue a career but are impacted in extreme cases by disabilities such as arthritis, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Maybe we need to think about how we can assist those people’s allowances more when they have to retire early, before their planned retirement.
The MPs who attended the “Room to Manoeuvre” event heard from Maureen, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. She said:
“I use aids at home, they help to keep me independent. However, I didn’t realise I could get them through the local authority and it’s not clear what to do when you need support. It’s important that MPs learn about the problems people with arthritis have accessing aids and adaptations, so they can make sure the right help is available.”
Arthritic conditions can be a drain on medical resources, requiring regular medication, blood checks, bone scans, and occasional time off work to attend appointments. They are often lifelong conditions, and remissions or flare-ups may occur. As was said earlier, we need to be flexible in our places of work to host and accommodate the issues that affect these individuals.
Being able to work is often seen as beating the challenge that such a condition presents: a person taking control of their condition, rather than the condition being in control of them. It allows that person to have dignity and pride in their personal achievements, which I think we would all agree they are entitled to. Versus Arthritis includes in one of its publications a quote from Dr Carol Black, the expert adviser to the Government on health and work:
“The evidence is clear that most people with these disabling conditions want to work. Indeed, with the right support and working arrangements, usually with modest adjustments, they can do so and be valued employees” or continue to be valued employees in a company.
Let us endeavour to ensure that we do not unnecessarily lose talented and hard-working people from the workforce. The Equality Act 2010 requires an employer to make reasonable adjustments to support job applicants and enable an employee with a disability, or physical or mental health condition, to in effect wholly fulfil the duties of their post. I am aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has published guidance on employing disabled people with health conditions, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission has provided, or cited, examples.
Additionally, the Government’s Access to Work scheme affords an opportunity for funding extra assistance, bespoke to an individual’s specific needs, to help that person start work, stay in work, or move into self-employment. I will refer later in my speech to the work, health and disability Green Paper that resulted in the announcement of the personal support package, through which people with health conditions including arthritis will be able to receive employment support that is more tailored to their specific or individual needs. Such funding is available to both employees and the self-employed, and may be provided for specialist equipment, support workers, transport needs, or training for colleagues to ensure that they fully understand the needs of their fellow employee and how best to assist them with their day-to-day workplace activities. There is a maximum amount, which is uprated annually. The Government’s “Improving Lives” White Paper stated that the Access to Work scheme would be “significantly enhanced”; hopefully, the Minister will provide an update on that point.
It is certainly of concern that employees may not be aware that assessments under that scheme are free, and some people may not even be aware of the qualifying criteria. Although I am not overly well informed, I am aware of some of the available support and of the employer’s responsibility, as I have signed up to the DWP’s disability confident scheme. That scheme improves how employers attract, recruit and, importantly, retain disabled workers. I am pleased to note that some 5,000 businesses in the United Kingdom are already on board.
I employ a person with osteoarthritis, osteopenia and polymyalgia rheumatica. Reasonable adjustments feature in my constituency offices. New chairs were purchased to ensure appropriate lumbar support, and a document stand for copy typing was subsequently purchased at a low cost, for occasions on which stiffness restricts movement—a stiffness that, when untreated, my staff member describes eloquently as
“at times, a living rigor”.
Other staff are observant, supportive, and undertake heavy weight-bearing tasks; in other words, they are collaborative and work as a team. That involves permission, sharing information about the condition, and—as I said—teamwork. My staff member also has fantastic support from her general practitioner and practice nurses.
People with arthritis and related conditions can often experience a greater than normal degree of tiredness, stiffness, or the side effects of medication for the condition. Indeed, certain necessary medication such as steroids may deplete the calcium levels in the body, putting people at further risk, in that they may potentially develop osteoporosis in addition to their existing condition. It is also important to note that symptoms will often fluctuate, with the sufferer having good days and bad days. I understand that even the weather may have an adverse effect on an individual, particularly temperature changes.
Arthritis and related conditions are the biggest cause of pain and disability in the United Kingdom, and result in over 30 million working days lost per annum. The British Society for Rheumatology highlights the need for multidisciplinary teams, and the considerable cost of rheumatoid arthritis to the UK economy. I am pleased that as part of the work, health and disability Green Paper, Ministers have explored ways to improve support for people with conditions such as arthritis, so that they can find and remain in work.
The ministerial foreword stated:
“This government is determined to build a country that works for everyone. A disability or health condition should not dictate the path a person is able to take in life—or in the workplace. What should count is a person’s talents and their determination and aspiration to succeed…We are bold in our ambition and we must also be bold in action. We must highlight, confront and challenge the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstanding”.
That message is still relevant today, and I hope this debate will reinvigorate discussion and capture the wider public’s attention.
The work, health and disability Green Paper proposed a 10-year plan to remove employment barriers for disabled people, and the Fit for Work scheme is being reformed to focus on what people can do, not what they cannot. I welcome the fact that the Access to Work scheme is being expanded to help more disabled people into work. However, at present there appears to be a lack of knowledge about the scheme and it is crucial that the Government proactively promote that valuable opportunity. When Versus Arthritis conducted a survey between May 2018 and June 2018, it found that of those who responded, 59% had never even heard of the Access to Work scheme. A proactive promotion of the scheme would, I am certain, assist the Government in meeting their ambitious and commendable aim of having 1 million more disabled people in employment by 2027.
There is a degree of comfort in knowing that since 2013, some 600,000 disabled people have moved into employment. We must build on that with a sense of urgency. In addition, according to Versus Arthritis, it has been discovered that many of the people who qualify for assistance from the Government’s Access to Work scheme face problems with how it is operated. Administration processes can on occasion be cumbersome, and it may be that the Government could carry out a review to ensure that things are more user-friendly. I am sure the Minister will take note of that. That is a concern with a number of issues with the DWP.
One of my constituents felt that the DWP did not fully comprehend the consequences of her osteoporosis when asking her to attend a course, particularly as she relied on others for transport. I for one appreciate that the DWP has been increasing its advisers, including its community partners, small employer advisers, disability employment advisers and work coaches, as well as providing training for them. It may be that that needs to be further enhanced to provide greater awareness among some of the DWP’s frontline staff of the various arthritic and associated conditions and to adequately address the needs of service users. I do not say that with any intention to be unkind to those staff, because they do a wonderful job on our behalf on a daily basis.